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Andrew Marr: British politics is broken – the centre cannot hold

“None of the above” is a great war cry – but our apathy and rejection of the mainstream parties are likely to lead to chaos and instability.

A change is coming. The leading politicians I’ve been talking to recently, while breaking Sunday-breakfast bread, keep saying the same thing: the polling doldrums are temporary. Soon, somebody will forge ahead. The wind is about to freshen. They all think it. The Tories are convinced that another few weeks of good economic news and playing up the Ukip threat a bit more will allow them to cut clear at last. Three points, then five, then six.

On the Labour side, they’re more nervous but they think that the vast public-sector cuts announced in the Autumn Statement and George Osborne’s promise of tax cuts for the better off are slowly being digested by millions of voters, who are concluding that they don’t like the sound of that very much. A great tactical mistake: surely the reward must be on its way.

All of this assumes that the country will “make up its mind”, which, in turn, assumes that there is a single country and that it has a mind and that, if there is and it does, Britain hasn’t, this year, made up its mind not to make up its mind. There are seven leaders pencilled in for the television debate that may or may not happen. It’s perfectly likely that neither of the big parties will break free and that the election will result in the collapse of the centre. Why is this?

The broad background can be briefly explained and is well understood. We have to start in the period between 1983 and 1989, during the chancellorship of Nigel Lawson, when the power of the City was vastly expanded, as a new financial global system, replacing that of Bretton Woods, took hold. Privatisation swept the world. Deregulated banks reshaped themselves with protean slickness. The power of national politics receded, nowhere more so than in Britain. After the fall of the Conservatives, New Labour, far from searching for a reverse gear, bolstered the power of financial markets. That government deployed (and boasted of) light-touch regulation, gave new powers to the Bank of England, brought in private consultancies to Whitehall (and watched benignly as former civil servants went to work for the big banks and private corporations) and used PFIs to raise capital for its favoured projects. This allowed an avowedly left-of-centre government to keep the money flowing and the financial markets happy, while rebuilding tattered schools and opening new hospitals.

During this period, the old City of London underwent a large-scale change of culture, becoming increasingly Americanised as the big Wall Street institutions moved in, bought in, broke up and swallowed. Thus the US sub-prime housing market crisis, which would always have contaminated British banks, felt like a domestic disaster when the crash came in 2007-2008.

International capitalism was rescued by huge government bailouts, with the now much-maligned Gordon Brown, alongside his chancellor, Alistair Darling, playing an important role. With millions of US homeowners facing foreclosure, stock markets plummeting and major British institutions such as Northern Rock and RBS teetering on the edge, many felt that a total collapse of our economic system was coming. It didn’t but the hangover, which has been with us now for seven or eight years, has completely dominated politics, both here and around the western world.

In an unsustainable spending splurge, who is more to blame: the borrower or the lender? That has really been the political argument, with the left blaming the short-term and greedy banking culture unleashed by deregulation, a capitalist orgy, while the right blames the high spending by governments that had been, in effect, bribing their electorates with a short-term prosperity unearned by higher productivity. (Nobody, of course, blamed the public for a massive increase in personal indebtedness during this period. Going shopping – and staying shopping – had become a fundamental western human right. Democratic
politicians tamper with it, or criticise it, at their peril.)

In Britain, at least, the right won the argument. Initially, much of the public blamed the banks; some bankers, such as RBS’s Fred Goodwin, became hate figures in the media across the spectrum. Popular culture largely agreed. From Up in the Air (2009) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), there was a spate of movies portraying the greed, hollowness and madness of the pre-crash financial system – remember Inside Job (2010) and Too Big to Fail and Margin Call, from the following year? Non-fiction books such as Tetsuya Ishikawa’s How I Caused the Credit Crunch and novels such as Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December and John Lanchester’s Capital took a similar stance. On the stage, we had many satirical assaults on the financial system, of which Lucy Prebble’s all-singing, all-dancing Enron was perhaps the most energetic and popular.

Some day, there will surely be a thesis about why this avalanche of cultural analysis apparently had so little effect on domestic politics. For, when it came to the fight between the defeated Labour politicians and the newly elected coalition ones, the repeated assertion that the real problem had been profligate overspending under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair seemed to win. As a result of the vast sums required from the public purse to save the banking system and the shrivelling of tax receipts as the recession continued, all governments had to rethink their public spending trajectories. The good times, fuelled by a cosy relationship between politicians and international capital, were over.

Perhaps Brown, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were so exhausted and demoralised by their experiences between 2007 and 2010 that they simply didn’t have the rhetorical energy to defend themselves effectively against George Osborne and David Cameron in the blame game. Perhaps it was inevitable that politicians would be blamed more: banks, by and large, don’t stand for re-election. And perhaps the public, contemplating its maxed-out credit cards and remembering the good times, had an instinctive sympathy for the masochistic message of austerity.

Margaret Thatcher applauds Nigel Lawson in Brighton on October 1988. Photo: Clive Limpkin/Associated Newspapers/Rex

Whatever the reason, the initial view of a social crisis caused by out-of-control capitalism was replaced by the belief that it was a bloated, out-of-control state that was largely to blame. That has probably been the single most important political fact of the past five years. We know that austerity has caused much suffering, for most people on welfare and for very large numbers of middle-income voters. Yet the bringers of austerity remain relatively popular, with the Tories at around 33 per cent, while the Labour critics of austerity are at roughly the same poll rating: just as popular, no more unpopular. However, words such as “popular” and “unpopular” seem inappropriate. The electorate appears to treat the two big, old parties with some indifference, as if they were exhausted boxers clinging on to one another, not quite ready to fall unconscious but entirely unable to deliver a vigorous final punch. That’s not much of a spectator sport.

Therefore, does the big story ahead of the 2015 general election not go like this? We had two grand political narratives offered to us in postwar Britain and they have both gone pop. The socialist story, which was that the public sector and public servants could be trusted to deliver a fairer and more decent society, could not survive the left’s brief alliance with turbocharged capitalism. Socialist critics of Tony Blair personalise this too much. It was a huge political defeat for social democracy, which began in the Thatcher period and continues today. Meanwhile, the free-market story, which promised a “virtuous cycle” of ever-greater prosperity, shared in by almost all, was also smashed by the events of 2008. The proposition that if you simply taxed people less and regulated business more lightly, you would find a stable, relatively fair and prosperous society growing automatically is one that even leading pro-market thinkers find hard to expound with a straight face.

Thus, the centre is gently collapsing – not simply mealy-mouthed, easy-osy, compromising, milk-and-water centrism or one-nation compassionism but the notion of there being a centre at all, a relatively stable central party system that is able to deliver coherent parliamentary majorities. All around the hollowing centre are multiple populisms, rubbing their hands – a populism that blames foreigners and Europe, a populism that blames the English-dominated state, the populist politics of Protestant Ulster, the left-wing populism of the Greens. These populisms are not the same. Of course not. They are often mutually antagonistic. Yet they each offer a single culprit for all social ills and they seem to be in a position of influence that we haven’t seen before – and that is, to recap, because of the collapse of the two old stories that once dominated Britain’s political imagination.

I have been simplifying. There are many other aspects to the collapse of the centre worth reminding ourselves of, as we head towards polling day. All of those stories about the failure of public bodies to behave properly or to protect the public – the terrible sex scandal stories, from Oxfordshire and Rotherham; the historic failures inside the BBC; the failures inside the NHS, leaving people to die in corridors – undermine the entire social-democratic narrative. If public servants can’t be trusted to look after sexually vulnerable teenage girls, why should we trust them to do anything else?

On the other side of the spectrum, the stories about tax evasion rip into the Panglossian suggestion that the attitudes that led to the crash have vanished, or even that the financial system possesses an uneasy conscience. Day after day, stories that are,
in essence, about the failure of authority, public and private, and the necessity of general mistrust are fed to us. We are left to join up the dots. We do so.

It’s possible to imagine ways in which the two big parties could recover some of their authority and attraction. Our biggest economic problem isn’t actually the deficit, serious though that is. It’s our lack of inventiveness and productivity. Unless we can find the ideas and the things to sell around the rest of the world, we are sunk. So one can imagine a pro-business social democracy that throws its energies into science, engineering and higher education.

Labour now lives in a world dominated by big business: to achieve greater fairness, it could simply use its power as a government purchaser to make private companies pay the living wage and their taxes and offer more apprenticeships. It could slaughter the vast number of tax loopholes accumulated under different governments. There are the glimmerings of such new thinking visible behind tax-and-spend but they are not nearly clear enough and confident enough yet to show through.

The Tories, meanwhile, could have taken their compassionate conservatism seriously and done more to spread the pain. Those black-and-white balls and friendly hedge fund managers almost seem like a series of acts of wanton self-harm. Tim Montgomerie’s “Good Right” project is the most interesting response and Michael Gove’s call for the Tories to be crusaders for the powerless shows that some Conservatives understand their plight. Perhaps if Cameron took all this more seriously, he might begin to make more ground.

Overall, however, we are now so close to the election that any big change of message from either Labour or the Tories seems unlikely. Neither party, certainly, can try to distract the voters with global stories to help itself out. Today, the British look abroad and see, mostly, the results of our own past failures (Iraqi, Syria, Libya) and our own current weakness (Ukraine, Isis). If there were one part of the state – the watchman state, for instance – that was operating conspicuously more effectively than the rest, then there might have been a left or right gain. But there isn’t. So those two old boxers resort to the politics of fear: Ed Miliband is in Alex Salmond’s pocket, one side says; David Cameron plans to abolish care for the elderly, says the other.

The collapse of authority and self-confidence at the centre of politics has consequences across society. One early example is the lashing anger and lack of civility in public discourse. Most Britons are in employment and average earnings are slowly creeping upwards again; few of us are immediately threatened by violence or disorder. It’s not 1929 and it’s not 1939 but there’s a remarkable amount of fear and fury swilling about.

Moderate, moderately spoken feminists are warned that they will be raped if they don’t shut up. Hard-working public servants are trolled. Some Scottish nationalists take a little time off the moral high ground to taunt my BBC colleague Nick Robinson about his cancer. It’s not just them; the poison is everywhere. People say that it’s always been there – it’s just that Twitter gave it wings. But I wonder to what extent the increase in anger can be explained by the falling away of the traditional left-right ideological argument, by the collapse of the centre? If we don’t have the old grammar for arguing about our future, we are more likely to turn personal and self-righteous.

A second, more important consequence is that we are quite close to losing the state in which most of us grew up. I think it’s highly likely that we will see enough Conservative and Ukip members elected to deliver an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU within two years. The way things are, it’s quite likely that we will vote to leave. If Scotland wanted to stay and England wanted to go, what would that do to the already shaky Union?

It may, anyway, be close to over. I hold my hand up and admit that I was one of those who thought, last summer, that the “Yes” campaign was on course to win. Since then, the surge in SNP membership and support has been remarkable. Labour’s Jim Murphy has the hardest job in politics.

But it could well be too late. There comes a time when the decay of political parties is inevitably followed by the decay of the power structures they inhabit and give life to. Scotland now appears to be so far to the left of England, or rather the English south, that the separate parts of the UK cannot continue together. Yet if the Union is over, the political shape of England will change, too – you can’t stop a landslide at one arbitrary point. Manchester and the north will demand many more powers from a Westminster government, which may, for other reasons, have had to desert the Palace. In England, the party system will rearrange itself. Everything will look and feel very, very different.

It would be wrong to regard such potential changes in a maudlin, pessimistic way. Change can revive as well as undermine. Perhaps we haven’t had enough of it in our political system over the past two centuries. However, the world is a dangerous place just now and this doesn’t seem the best time to replace a relatively unpopular coalition with a weaker government, whether led by the right or the left.

No voter is going to go into the booth and vote for instability. But if we are collectively saying, “None of you is worth supporting,” then “none of you” – radical instability, an unpredictable clatter of change, a weak centre – is what we are voting to get. “None of the above” sounds like a fine, high-minded slogan. It wouldn’t make much of a government.

Andrew Marr’s most recent book is the novel “Head of State” (Fourth Estate)

He appears at the Wapping Project Mayfair, London W1, on Thursday 26 March, in conversation with Erica Wagner, in association with the New Statesman: book tickets here.

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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The prophets of Trumpism

How the ideas of two pre-war intellectual refugees – the radical Herbert Marcuse and the reactionary Eric Voegelin – are influencing the new culture wars among Trump and his acolytes.

Even after Donald Trump’s more conciliatory address to Congress, American politics seems set to become a battle between the president’s joyless autocracy and a carnival of protest that could end up evoking the anti-war movements of the 1960s. There will be more draconian executive orders and more marches in pink hats. There may well be violence.

The intellectual battle that will be played out in the months and years to come, however, was foretold by two German refugees from Nazi persecution: Eric Voegelin, the doyen of Cold War reactionary conservatives, and Herbert Marcuse, the inspiration behind the revolutionary student activism of the 1960s. Voegelin argued that society needed an order that could be found only by reaching back to the past. Marcuse argued that refusal to accede to tyranny was essential to give birth to a revolutionary politics that would propel progress to a new kind of society. Marcuse the radical and Voegelin the reactionary could not seem further apart, and yet they share a common intellectual root in Germany in the 1920s, from which came a shared critique of modern society. Their ideas may well inspire some of the political conflicts to come.

The culture wars of the 1960s are very much alive for Trump’s acolytes. Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News and Trump’s chief strategist, blames the counterculture of the 1960s – the drugs, the hippies, the liberal reforms – for America losing its way and, eventually, succumbing to economic crisis in 2008. Bannon set out his ideas in Generation Zero, a 2010 documentary which blamed the financial crash not on greedy, under-regulated bankers but on the moral and cultural malaise that started in the 1960s. He is still fighting people who might have been inspired by Marcuse. “The baby boomers are the most spoiled, most self-centred, most narcissistic generation the country has ever produced,” he told an interviewer in 2011.

Bannon’s thinking, set out in several speeches over the past few years, is that America’s working and middle classes have been betrayed by an elite in Washington, DC (the “Imperial City”, he calls it) which oversees insider deals so that the insiders can profit from global capitalism. Bannon wants to return America to traditions rooted in Judaeo-Christian values and to reassert national sovereignty. Most worryingly, on several occasions he has said that the crisis will only be resolved through the catharsis of conflict and national mobilisation through war.

America has always been a work in progress. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were very different presidents but they shared a belief that progress was America’s calling. The reactionary turn in US politics is not just a shift to the right but an attempt to displace progress as the common creed.

Instead, Bannon and his ilk want America to become a work in regress, as the historian Mark Lilla argues in his recent book on reactionary philosophy, The Shipwrecked Mind. Much of the new reactionary thinking echoes Voegelin’s idea that, in order to renew itself, a society must first go backwards to find where and how it lost its way.

 

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Eric Voegelin defies easy categorisation. Born in 1901 in Cologne and brought up in Vienna, he was brave and principled. After a visit to the United States in the 1920s, he wrote two books criticising Nazi racial politics, which got him sacked from his teaching position at the University of Vienna. When the Germans arrived in Austria following the Anschluss in 1938, Voegelin and his wife fled on a train as the Gestapo ransacked their apartment.

After a brief stay in Switzerland, he moved to America and in 1942 took up an academic post at Louisiana State University. He then embarked on a prolific career, the centrepiece of which was his sprawling, multi-volume work Order and History.

Voegelin’s philosophy gave expression to the dark and powerful forces that had shaped his life. He believed that modern society was prey to flawed utopianism – he called this “gnosticism” – in which an elite of prophets takes power, claiming special insight into how heaven could be created on Earth for a chosen people. Gnostic sects in the Middle Ages had their modern equivalents in the Nazi proclamation of a racially pure utopia and the Marxist promise of equality for all. Voegelin’s catchphrase was: “Don’t immanentise the eschaton!” (meaning: “Do not try to build heaven on Earth”).

Marxism and Nazism, Voegelin argued, were political versions of religion: we get rid of God only to reinstall him in the form of an elite of reformers with all the answers. In his recent bestselling book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that we are entering a new stage of the process that Voegelin identified. We have become as powerful as gods, he argued, but now need to learn how to be wise and responsible gods.

Today Voegelin’s attack on overreaching perfectionism echoes in reactionary criticism of Obamacare and in the yearning for national certitude. Voegelin thought the role of philosophy was not to change the world, but to understand its underlying order and help us tune in to that, rather than being diverted by the lure of the false prophets of political religion.

He was influenced by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who said that “origin is the goal”, by which he meant that the point of the future was to restore the ancient past. For Voegelin, order comes from a sense of harmony, of everything being in its place. This is a position that opens itself up to deeply conservative interpretations.

When, in his presidential inauguration address, Trump spoke of American “carnage”, he was echoing Voegelin’s account of decay and disorder. When he talked of “one people, one nation, one heart” he was evoking the kind of order that Voegelin spoke of. Trump and his acolytes see their mission as the need to restore a natural order, under which illegal immigrants and aliens are kept well away and white people can feel at home once more in a society where everyone signs up to Judaeo-Christian beliefs.

Nothing could be further from the ideas of Herbert Marcuse.

Born in 1898 in Berlin, Marcuse became a member of the celebrated Marxist Frankfurt School, which included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and, tangentially, Walter Benjamin. Marcuse emigrated to the United States in 1933 as Hitler came to power. By 1940, he had become a US citizen and, while Voegelin was starting work at Louisiana State, Marcuse was working as a researcher for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. He continued working for the government after the war and resumed his academic career only in 1952. His best-known book, One-Dimensional Man, was published in 1964.

One of Marcuse’s big ideas was the “Great Refusal”: progress had to start with refusing to accept an unacceptable reality. One should say “no” to a world of alienating work, dominated by corporations and impersonal systems, which allow little room for people to explore their deeper sense of humanity. Marcuse saw the student and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, which adopted him as their intellectual mentor, as evidence that the Great Refusal was gaining momentum.

Trump has given the Great Refusal new life. The documentary film-maker Michael Moore has called for cities to become “regions of resistance” by offering sanctuary to immigrants threatened with deportation. Angela Davis, the once-jailed Black Panther revolutionary who was close to Marcuse, told the Women’s March in Washington that people had to be ready for “1,459 days of resistance: resistance on the ground, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music”. In a lecture at the Free University of West Berlin published in 1970, Marcuse said demonstrations and protests were an essential first step towards a “liberation of consciousness” from the capitalist machine:

“The whole person must demonstrate his participation and his will to live . . . in a pacified, human world . . . it is . . . harmful . . . to preach defeatism and quietism, which can only play into the hands of those who run the system . . . We must resist if we still want to live as human beings, to work and be happy.”

The Great Refusal was a capacious idea capable of embracing anyone who wanted to say, “No, enough!” It could embrace trade unions and workers, African Americans and feminists, students and national liberation movements, those who were on the margins of society and those professionals – technicians, scientists, artists, intellectuals – who worked at its centres of power and who chose to refuse as an act of conscience.

As a new generation prepares to embark on a period of resistance, what lessons should they learn from the wave of protest that Marcuse once helped to inspire?

Protest is a way to bear witness, to make voices heard and to make it possible for people to bond. Yet the fire of protest can easily die out as the Occupy movement did, even if its embers are still glowing. The carnival-type atmosphere can be uplifting but fleeting. Creating common programmes to be taken forward by organisations demands hard work. The Arab spring showed how quickly a popular revolution can turn sour when a movement is not ready to take power.

Since the protests that Marcuse was involved in, no comparable movement of the left in the United States has mobilised such a broad support base. Instead, that period of resistance was followed, at the end of the 1970s, by a shift to the right in the US and the UK. It was reactionaries, not revolutionaries, who set off forward to the past.

Now we seem to be in for an intensifying cycle of conflict between the adherents of Marcuse and Voegelin: between the Marxist revolutionary and the mystic conservative; between resistance and order; between those who want to live among a cosmopolitan, urban multitude and those who want a society of provincial oneness and sameness; those who want change, innovation and creativity and those who crave simplicity, stability and authority.

That much is obvious. Yet what is striking is not how different Marcuse was from Voegelin, but how alike they were. The best way to respond to the rise of Trump might be to blend their ideas rather than set them against one another, to create a new intellectual and political combination. Indeed, they could be seen as different branches of the same intellectual tree.

Voegelin was influenced by the German- Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas, who studied with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg in the 1920s. Jonas joined the German Jewish Brigade, which fought against Hitler, before emigrating to the US, where he became a professor at the New School in New York. He was one of the foremost scholars of gnosticism, which became Voegelin’s focus. Towards the end of his life, Jonas took up a chair at the University of Munich named after Voegelin.

Voegelin did not study at Freiburg, but one of his closest friends was the social ­theorist Alfred Schütz, a student of Edmund Husserl’s who applied his phenomenological thinking to the sociology of ­everyday life. Marcuse studied with Husserl and Heidegger at Freiburg, at the same time as Jonas and Hannah Arendt. From that shared intellectual root have emerged some powerful ideas that could unite progressives and conservatives.

Only at moments of profound crisis – of the kind we are living through – do we see just how contingent, vulnerable and fragile our society is. Voegelin warned: “In an hour of crisis, when the order of society flounders and disintegrates, the fundamental problems of political existence in history are more apt to come into view than in periods of comparative stability.”

A crisis should be a time for profound reflection, yet leaders are more likely to resort to “magical operations” to divert people’s attention: moral condemnation, branding enemies as aggressors, threatening war. “The intellectual and moral corruption,” Voegelin wrote, “which expresses itself in the aggregate of such magical operations may pervade society with the weird ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, as we experience it in Western society.”

Welcome to the Trump White House.

 

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Voegelin is a timely reminder of how unconservative Donald Trump is and of how conservatives should be a vital part of the coalition against him. Conservatism comes in several strains: laissez-faire conservatives such as George Osborne want small government, free trade, low taxes and freedom of choice. Status quo conservatives such as Angela Merkel want stability and continuity, even if that entails sticking with social welfare programmes and liberal democracy. Authoritarian conservatives, however, are prepared to use the big state to engineer change.

One important question for the future is whether the laissez-faire and status quo conservatives will realign around the ascendant authoritarian camp promoted by Trump. Merkel is the world leader of the conservative-inspired opposition to the US president. But his most profound critic is Pope Francis, who uses language similar to Voegelin’s to condemn the “material and spiritual poverty” of capitalism, and the language of Marcuse to condemn the process of dehumanisation embarked upon by Bannon and Trump.

“As Christians and all people of goodwill, it is for us to live and act at this moment,” the Pope has said. “It is a grave responsib­ility, since certain present realities, unless ­effectively dealt with, are capable of ­setting off a process of dehumanisation which would then be hard to reverse.”

The challenge for progressives is to reframe resistance in terms that can appeal to conservatives: to use conservative ideas of character and spirituality for progressive ends. We will spend a great deal more time trying to conserve things. The swarm of legal challenges against Trump will hold him to the principles of the US constitution and the rule of law. Many of the young people attracted to Bernie Sanders and the Occupy movement yearned for the restoration of the American dream.

Building bridges with the conservative opposition is not merely a tactical manoeuvre to widen support. It has deeper roots in shared doubts about modernity which go back to Freiburg and the man both Marcuse and Jonas renounced in 1964 for supporting the Nazis: Martin Heidegger.

For Heidegger, modernity was a restless, disruptive force that displaced people from jobs, communities and old ways of life, and so left them searching for a sense of home, a place to come back to, where they could be at one with the world. Technology played a central role in this, Heidegger argued, providing not just tools for us to use, but an entire framework for our lives.

Marcuse, writing four decades before ­Facebook and Google, warned that we needed to resist a life in which we freely comply with our own subjugation by technical, bureaucratic systems that control our every thought and act; which make life rich but empty, busy but dead, and turn people into adjuncts of vast systems. We should “resist playing a game that was always rigged against true freedom”, he urged, using language that has been adopted by Trump.

Writing not far from what was to become Silicon Valley, Marcuse pointed to a much larger possibility: the technological bounty of capitalism could, in principle, free us from necessity and meet all human needs, but “. . . only if the vast capabilities of science and technology, of the scientific and artistic imagination, direct the construction of a sensuous environment; only if the world of work loses its alienating features and becomes a world of human relationships; only if productivity becomes creativity are the roots of domination dried up in individuals”.

Writing in the 1960s, when full employment was the norm and advanced society was enjoying a sense of plenty, Marcuse foreshadowed the debates we are having now about what it will mean to be human in an age of machines capable of rapid learning. Mark Zuckerberg’s argument in his recently published manifesto that Facebook creates an infrastructure for a co-operative and creative global civil society is a response to concerns that Marcuse raised.

 

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Just as Marcuse saw that capitalism was a union of contradictions – freedom created on the basis of exploitation, wealth generated by poverty – Voegelin thought modern society was self-defeating: it declined as it advanced. Giving everyone wages to buy stuff from the shops was not progress, he said, but a soulless distortion of the good life, an invitation to spiritual devastation. The gnosticism that Voegelin so hated, the effort to design a perfect society, was also the source of the technological and rational bureaucracy that Marcuse blamed for creating a one-dimensional society. Voegelin would have regarded the apostles of Silicon Valley as arch-gnostics, creating a rational order to the world with the insights gleaned from Big Data and artificial intelligence.

Marcuse and Voegelin point us in the same direction for a way forward. People need to be able to find a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Both would have seen Trump’s ascendancy as a symptom of a deeper failure in modern society, one that we feel inside ourselves. The problem for many of us is not that we do not have enough money, but that we do not have enough meaning.

For Voegelin, living well involves “opening our souls” to something higher than buy and sell, work and shop, calculate and trade, margins and profits. Once we detach ourselves from these temporary, Earthly measures of success, we might learn to accept that life is a mysterious, bubbling stream upon which we cannot impose a direction.

A true sense of order, Voegelin argues, comes from living with an open soul and a full spirit, not being part of a machine manufacturing false promises. If we cannot manage to create order from within, by returning to the life guided by the soul, we will find order imposed, more brutally, from without. Marcuse, likewise, thought that turning the Great Refusal into a creative movement required an inner renewal, a “liberation of consciousness” through aesthetics, art, fantasy, imagination and creativity. We can only escape the grip of the one-dimensional society, which reduces life to routines of buying and selling, by recognising that we are multidimensional people, full of potential to grow in different ways. It is not enough merely to resist reality; we have to escape it through leaps of imagination and see the world afresh.

Václav Havel, the leader of the Czech resistance to communist rule, called this “living in truth”. Havel’s most influential essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, written in 1978, is about how to avoid the slow spiritual death that comes from living in an oppressive regime that does not require you to believe in what it does, merely to go along with “living within a lie”.

The greengrocer who is the central figure and motif in Havel’s essay eventually snaps, and stops putting in his shop window an official sign that reads: “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel wrote: “In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”

Human beings by nature long to live in truth, even when put under pressure to live a lie. In language evocative of Voegelin and Marcuse, Havel writes: “In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.”

In communist Czechoslovakia that meant taking a wide and generous view of what counts as resistance as people sought their own ways to “live in truth”. Under President Trump, many Americans are finding they are living within a regime of lies, and they will be drawn back, time and again, to find ways, large and small, personal and political, to live in truth.

Resistance to Trump and Trumpism will succeed only if it mobilises both conservative and progressive forces opposed to authoritarianism, and it needs to stand for a better way to live in truth, with dignity.

Charles Leadbeater is the author of the ALT/Now manifesto, which is available to read at: banffcentre.ca

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution